Dances with Wolves (1990)

A film analysis prepared by K. P. Eagan

Full Cast and Major Credit List 

Directed by: Kevin Costner

Writing credits: Michael Blake (also the novel)


Kevin Costner...Lieutenant Dunbar  
Mary McDonnell...Stands With a Fist
Graham Greene...Kicking Bird
Rodney A. Grant...Wind in His Hair
Floyd Red Crow Westerman...Ten Bears
Tantoo Cardinal...Black Shawl
Robert Pastorelli...Timmons
Charles Rocket...Lieutenant Elgin
Maury Chaykin...Major Fambrough
Jimmy Herman...Stone Calf
Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse...Smiles A Lot
Michael Spears...Otter
Jason R. Lone Hill...Worm
Tony Pierce...Spivey
Doris Leader Charge...Pretty Shield
Tom Everett...Sergeant Pepper
Larry Joshua...Sergeant Baker
Kirk Baltz...Edwards
Wayne Grace...Major
Donald Hotton...General Tide
Annie Costner...Christine
Conor Duffy...Willie
Elisa Daniel...Christine's Mother
Percy White Plume...Big Warrior
John Tail...Escort Warrior
Steve Reevis...Sioux #1/Warrior #1
Sheldon Wolfchild...Sioux #2/Warrior #2
Wes Studi...Toughest Pawnee
Buffalo Child...Pawnee #1
Clayton Big Eagle...Pawnee #2
Richard Leader Charge...Pawnee #3  
Redwing Ted Nez...Sioux Warrior
Marvin Holy...Sioux Warrior
Raymond Newholy...Sioux Courier
David J. Fuller...Kicking Bird's Son
Ryan White Bull...Kicking Bird's Eldest Son
Otakuye Conroy...Kicking Bird's Daughter
Maretta Big Crow...Village Mother
Steven Chambers...Guard
William H. Burton...General's Aide
Bill W. Curry...Confederate Cavalryman
Nick Thompson...Confederate Soldier
Carter Hanner...Confederate Soldier
Kent Hays...Wagon Driver
Robert Goldman...Union Soldier
Frank P. Costanza...Tucker
James A. Mitchell...Ray
R.L. Curtin...Ambush Wagon Driver
Produced by: Bonnie Arnold (associate), Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts (executive), Derek Kavanagh (line), Jim Wilson

Original music by: John Barry, Peter Buffett ("Fire Dance")

Cinematography by: Dean Semler

Film Editing by: William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter, Neil Travis

Tagline: "The Civil War had ended, but one man's battle with himself was just beginning..."

Filming Locations for Dances with Wolves (1990):

Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA

South Dakota, USA

Pierre, South Dakota, USA

Rapid City, South Dakota, USA

On-line Reviews and Commentary:

Film Analysis

Dances With Wolves is one of the most important motion pictures to ever come out of Hollywood. For all its shortcomings, the film still goes a long way in bringing a snapshot of Native American culture into the collective consciousness of dominant America. The screenplay promotes a greater understanding, acceptance, and sympathy for the Lakota culture. There are many scenes within the film that seem to support this idea. The humanity of the Lakota people and the familial bonds of tribal life are made accessible through these moments also. I am thinking especially of the multiple scenes in which "gift giving" is witnessed. The first exchange of gifts occurs when Kevin Costner, Lt. Dunbar, makes coffee for the small Lakota band that comes to visit him at the soldier fort. As the scene winds down, we see the warriors leaving him with new tin coffee cups strapped to their backs and through a voice over narration, it is revealed that he has also given them some coffee and sugar to take back to their camp circle with them.

As the bonds of friendship develop, we see this act of kindness reciprocated in the form a buffalo skin that is given to Lt. Dunbar by Kicking Bird, played by Graham Green. Later in the film, Costner's character is allowed to marry Stands With A Fist, played by Mary McDonnell. In the extended version of the production, he must "buy" the woman according to Lakota custom. The only problem is that he has nothing in the way of possessions in which to give for her. All he has is his horse and it is decided that his mount has too "strong a medicine" to simply trade it for a woman. The entire camp circle then takes up a collection for him, so he can "buy" Stands With A Fist. Even the poorest members of the tribe offer something to him so he may exchange it for this woman. It is a wonderful example of the true nature of these people.

The scene in the film where the Lakota are preparing to send a war party against the Pawnee is also quite revealing. The camera shifts from warrior to warrior as the men bid farewell to their families and loved ones. It is particularly poignant for me personally because of my own past involvement with the United States military. When I was a younger man, I too left my wife, home, and family in order to go forth against an enemy of my nation. The feelings the scene conjures up are very strong, especially when Kicking Bird embraces his wife and they touch their heads together for what may be the last time. There is also a short scene in the film where Kicking Bird is preparing to go to sleep in his teepee. He lies down under his robes and immediately we see a look of puzzlement on his face. Moments later he pulls one of his children's dolls out from under the robe. Without any dialogue, the film has provided us with a beautiful portrait of the humanity of these people and also touched upon a commonality inherent to all persons, regardless of race.

This cognizant examination of Lakota culture reaches its zenith with the last scene of the film. At this point, Dances With Wolves/Lt Dunbar, has decided to leave the camp circle in order to provide some measure of safety from the United States Army for his tribal brethren. Kicking Bird is shown rifling through his possessions within his teepee. He is trying to find a ceremonial peace pipe that he wants to give Dances With Wolves as a parting gift. His wife gives the pipe to him and moments later he and Dances With Wolves are shown exchanging pipes with one another. It is their final act of kindness and friendship towards each other. As the scene ends, Wind In His Hair, played by Rodney Grant, screams a lonesome farewell to Dances With Wolves. Over and over again, the audience hears the Lakota pronunciation of Dances With Wolves' name being yelled out from the top of the canyon by Wind In His Hair. It is an extremely emotional and powerful scene.

On the filpside, Dances With Wolves has quite a few faults. Let's rewind for a moment and ponder the opening scenes of the film. First of all, I don't by into the notion that an individual would have been able to charge a Confederate line alone and on horseback without getting killed outright. That first scene is simply not realistic. However, if the filmmaker's intentions are to portray Lt. Dunbar as having "strong medicine" then yes, I would have to say it WAS possible!

The film's portrayal of the Pawnee was not very flattering either. These Native Americans are shown in the traditional Hollywood role of the "Savage Indian". That is all we get from them throughout the film too. We see them do nothing but kill both whites and Lakota. They are alienated further from the audience when we see them acting as scouts for the United States Army at the end of the film. The roles of the majority of whites are not necessarily positive either. The whites are seen in constant conflict with one another and the natural world around them throughout the film. Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist are really the only white characters in the film who could be said to be portrayed positively at all.

This film also embodies a dynamic of dominant American culture that cannot be ignored. The notion of "Going Indian". Ý The process of, "the white discovery of and the renaming and adoption into the tribal society of the American Indian" (Baird 153). As I stated previously, the screenplay yields a unique perspective on Lakota culture, but also at its center is this dramatic story of a disillusioned white man trying to find himself. According to the underlying message of the film, he will only accomplish this personal catharsis by his immersion into the world of the Native American.

Historical Accuracy

As far as the historical background of the film is concerned, the Lakota chief called Ten Bears was actually a Southern Plains Yapparika Comanche chief. The real Kicking Bird was not a "medicine man", but a chief in another Southern Plains tribe called the Kiowa. The original novel centered around the Comanche of the Southern Plains. However, due to the fact that the film production company secured filming access to a herd of buffalo in South Dakota, a change of tribes occurred. The most significant historical error involves the winter campaign launched by the United States Army in search of Dances With Wolves and Ten Bears' band. The year is supposed to be 1864. No United States Army winter campaigns were launched against any Native Americans until November of 1868. The massacre that took place that month was led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry against Chief Black Kettle's people of the Cheyenne Nation. It occurred at Washita Creek on Thanksgiving Day.

Sources of Applicable Information:

Baird, Robert

1998 Going Indian: Dances with Wolves. Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film. Ed. Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998. pp. 153-169.

Blake, Michael

1988 Dances With Wolves. New York: Fawcett, 1988.

Castillo, Edward D.

1991 Dances With Wolves. Film Quarterly 44 (Summer 1991):14-23.